New Acquisition: Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building

April 24, 2012

Historians have called Chicago architect Louis Sullivan “the father of skyscrapers” and “the father of modernism.” Together with H. H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan forms the “recognized trinity of American architecture,” according to the eminent scholar James O’Gorman. He was the philosophical leader of the Prairie School, the Midwest manifestation of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the teacher of Wright, who was his chief draftsman for five years.

Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building, 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee

Completed in 1894, Sullivan’s thirteen-story Stock Exchange was an early triumph of the skyscraper—that signature edifice of America, perfected in Chicago. Made possible by the development of steel framing in the 1880s, the skyscraper was not invented by Sullivan and his partner Dankmar Adler. Rather, their revolutionary contribution was to take the skyscraper away from the prevailing vocabulary of historical styles and create one derived from the nature of the material (steel and iron). Rejecting Greek and Roman classicism, Sullivan used abstracted, organic floral designs to emphasize the building’s verticality and relate the shape of the building to its specific purpose.

It was Sullivan who coined the phrase “form ever follows function,” arguing that a building’s exterior should reflect the activities within. These words became the clarion cry of all twentieth-century pioneers of modernism. While Sullivan led the way to the International Style, he differed from its practitioners in his passionate embrace of ornament. Informed by the poetry of Walt Whitman and the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he advocated a new American architecture based on the simplification of mass and the growth of plants.

Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (detail), 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee

Sullivan believed that ornament is not merely decoration, for it expresses both the building’s structural tensions and its soul. In a famous essay of 1892, “Ornament in Architecture,” he urged architects to think of a building’s ornamentation as “a garment of poetic imagery” in which “strong, athletic, and simple forms” are clad. This elevator surround demonstrates how Sullivan adapted naturalistic motifs to the reticulated austerity of metal—in this case, an iron frame. The perfectly proportioned grid of stylized seedpods acts as a foil for the more sinuous curves of the frieze. And a surround for an elevator, which, together with steel, enabled the development of the skyscraper, is the ideal way to represent Sullivan in LACMA’s collection.

Louis Sullivan, Elevator Surround from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building (detail), 1892, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee

The Stock Exchange, tragically, was demolished in 1972. Its trading room is permanently installed at the Art Institute in Chicago, and many other museums have fragments of the interior. Most, however, are not as complete and accurate as this surround, which has been assembled from the side of the elevators located on the third to the thirteenth floors of the building. Its acquisition enables us to interpret Sullivan’s seminal rationalist architecture as well as what Frank Lloyd Wright called “that supreme, erotic, high adventure of the mind that was his ornament.”

Wendy Kaplan, curator and department head, Decorative Arts and Design


Circling Back with Ai Weiwei

February 7, 2012

As I take the elevator up from the parking garage every morning to go to work, I have enjoyed being greeted by twelve large animal heads for the last six months. Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads will be leaving LACMA at the end of this week on February 12, but the sculptures’ connections to the museum’s collections will live on. As a decorative arts and design curator working in a department with objects dating to the fifteenth century, I am always looking for the present in past and vice versa. Believe it or not, Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac project can beam you back to the eighteenth century in a single bound.

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (installation view), © Ai Weiwei, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

The eighteenth century was one of prolific exchange between China and the European world, which resulted in incredibly creative trans-hemispheric interpretations of design aesthetics. By midcentury there were a considerable number of Jesuits present in the Chinese imperial court, where Eastern and Western concepts of science, art, mathematics, horology, astronomy, and religion mingled. In 1747 the Qianlong emperor decided to build a complex of European palaces on twenty acres in the northwestern section of the Yuan Ming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.  Based on the designs of grand European palaces such as Versailles, Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist and Manchurian artists and architects built what would become a series of forty structures, including the European Pavilions, formal gardens, and three fountains. Ai’s Zodiac Heads recall the water clock fountain built in front of the Hall of Calm Seas, which featured twelve animal figures based on the Chinese zodiac that spurted water from their mouths to tell the time.

Daniel Garnier, Two-handled Cup, 1685, gift of Mimi and Leonard Foreman, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

While the Chinese showed interest in European design, Westerners in China were recording their experiences through sketches and drawings that were sent back to Europe and published, thus providing a plethora of Asian inspirations for the decorative arts, designs, architecture, and landscaping. Providing the West with its first source of engravings based on Chinese models, Johannes Nieuhof’s An Embassy from the East India Company of the United Provinces to the Emperor of China, a collection of 150 illustrations from the travels of a Dutch embassy to Beijing in 1656, was first translated into English and published by John Ogilby in Britain in 1669.  Capturing an extensive view of the Chinese empire’s topography, principle cities, inhabitants, architecture, flora and fauna, as well as a map indicating the route taken by the embassy from Java to Beijing, Nieuhof’s engravings presented a defining vision of China for European eyes and became a rich source of visual imagery for myriad media, including this English silver cup, featuring chased scenes of Chinese figures and exotic birds.

Chinoiserie Plate, c. 1770, Lunéville Petit Feu Faience Manufactory, Lunéville, France, gift of MaryLou Boone, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Anne Allen, Chinoiserie Design (after Jean-Batiste Pillement), c. 1798, Graphic Arts Council Fund, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

The European adaption of Asian aesthetics is known as chinoiserie, a term derived from the French word chinois (Chinese) that denotes a type of European art influenced by Asian styles. Often the Western version of Asia was quite imaginative, based more on fantasy than reality. As the mania for imported Asian objects grew in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, Westerners began to copy Asian motifs, forms and even methods of manufacture, especially the production of porcelain. Faience is the French version of tin-glazed earthenware, or ceramics covered with an opaque white glaze. Initially faience was an attempt to mimic true hard-paste porcelain imported into Europe from Asia, but these wares ultimately became distinctive and sought-after ceramics in their own right. This French faience plate is decorated with a scene after the designs of Jean-Baptiste Pillment, whose first Chinese fantasies, entitled A New Book of Chinese Design Calculated to Improve the Present Taste and A New Book of Chinese Ornaments, were published in London in 1754 and 1755.  Subsequent publications by Pillement, as well British adaptations of his work such as Robert Sayer’s The Ladies Amusement, which contained approximately 1,500 drawings, the majority of which were by Pillement, further supplied chinoiserie motifs to craftsmen.

John Swift, Tea Urn, 1768–1769, gift of Julian Sands, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

John Swift, Tea Urn (detail), 1768–1769, gift of Julian Sands, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

In the hands of British silversmiths working in the second half of the eighteenth century, chinoiserie designs began to take over the design scheme of works. John Swift was known for his coffeepots, tea kettles, and hot water urns with scenes of relaxed Pillementesque chinoiserie figures enjoying tea, at leisure in the garden, or playing musical instruments. His examples of British silver illustrate the mid-century trend for chinoiserie scenes to burst forth from the containment of reserves or cartouches and cover the entire body of the vessels. On this tea urn by Swift a Chinese figure rests casually on a latticed fence, strumming a stringed instrument by a pagoda-shaped building.

Thomas Pitts, Epergne, 1763–64, long-term loan from the Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; photo: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It was in the 1760s that a fully three-dimensional realization of chinoiserie flourished in British silver and English epergnes, one of the most complex pieces of silver commissioned from English silversmiths, reached the highest level of fanciful articulation and greatest degree of inventiveness, expressed in a manner that engaged Western participants in a complete sensorial experience of an envisioned Orient. Leading the way was a series of pagoda-topped epergnes by Thomas Pitts; these multi-purpose pieces were meant to facilitate the new French dining style of helping oneself.  At least twelve of these epergnes were made beginning in 1761 with identical rococo scrollwork feet and frames. The addition of the pagoda canopy to epergnes lent a new dramatic dimension to their composition. Should the exotic nature of the piece possibly be overlooked, the Asian-inspired creation is topped with a pineapple, the epitome of imported fruit from foreign ports. I will miss being surrounded by Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads when I come and go from the museum, but as twelve sculptures set sail from the West Coast they leave another layer of meaning on centuries-old works of art that will stay right here at LACMA.

Elizabeth A. Williams, the Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts and Design


What Is It About Chairs?

December 22, 2011

What is it about chairs?  I once drove past a garage sale in San Francisco and caught a glimpse of a chair. I pulled over and begged the price down to $80. That same chair design, by Luther Conover, is in our California Design exhibition.

The Luther Conover chair, circa 1950.

Last year while doing interviews for our California Design show, I asked designer John Kapel why chairs have such allure. He gave a thoroughly compelling explanation of why chairs are particularly expressive opportunities for a designer.

According to Kapel, a chair is a showpiece, one that is often positioned in a living room such that it can be appreciated from many different angles – unlike, say, a sofa, which typically sits against a wall. He also explained the complex geometry of a chair, its assortment of lines and angles that invite design innovation. And he made the point that, unlike, say, a table, a chair cradles the human body, and reflects our physicality.

The Huntington has a current exhibition, The House that Sam Built, part of Pacific Standard Time, about the work of another chair master, Sam Maloof, and his midcentury cohort, centered around Claremont. In a stroke of exhibition design genius, one gallery features a Maloof chair you can actually sit in.

Yes, you can sit in it. At the Huntington exhibition The House that Sam Built.

When we interviewed textile artist Kay Sekimachi for our own California Design show, she was sitting in a beautiful Sam Maloof rocking chair.

…Completing that circle, the show at the Huntington features some of Kay’s weavings (her husband, Bob Stocksdale, was a close friend of Maloof, and his work appears in all of the PST shows discussed here).

Kay Sekimachi weavings at the Huntington.

After the Huntington, I continued on to the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation to see the house that Sam did build, out in Alta Dena, and another small Pacific Standard Time exhibition, In Words and Wood. A lifelong work in progress, the house is magical – full of Maloof’s furniture, paintings by his wife (and her collection of kochina dolls from her days as an art teacher in New Mexico), more carved wooden bowls by Stocksdale, sculpture by Sekimachi, and ceramics by various Claremont friends and colleagues. I intended to spend an hour and spent three.

Outside the shop at the Maloof Foundation.

One thing leads to another, and for me that day, chairs led to ceramics: from Alta Dena, I went to downtown Pomona to see the American Museum of Ceramic Art in its brand-new location. They have an excellent selection of work by Harrison McIntosh amongst many others (Paul Soldner, Peter Voulkos) in the exhibition Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945-1975.

Ceramic work by Harrison McIntosh with a mural by Millard Sheets in the background at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.

Our own show at LACMA includes work by McIntosh, who grew up in Los Angeles (in an interview we did with him, available here, he described how he and his parents commissioned a modest house from Richard Neutra in 1939, adding just enough space and light in the garage to allow Harrison a workbench where he began working with terra cotta). In a room full of notable ceramic works at the AMOCA, his sang.  AMOCA is a focused museum, with deep ties to the Claremont arts and crafts scene that included McIntosh and Maloof, as well as Paul Soldner, Millard Sheets, and Rupert Deese. (If you go, I highly recommend a visit to the ceramic studios in the back to see work in progress by a new generation of ceramic artists).

One of the striking things about PST, and particularly the design-related shows, is how small the midcentury SoCal design scene was. You can trace certain relationships amongst friends across shows, and see who shared studio space, taught at the same college, or frequented the same Claremont coffee shop, sharing inspiration and practical advice. Plan a route and trace your own narrative thread here.

At the Sam Maloof house, I heard tell of a visitor from Germany who came to Los Angeles for a month, just to see all of the PST shows. It’s not hard to imagine such a journey. Especially because this is what Southern California looks like in December:

Gardens at the Huntington.

The gardens at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation.

Amy Heibel


Installing California Design: Q&A with Architects Hodgetts + Fung

September 29, 2011

For the ambitious installation of California Design, 1930–1965LACMA sought out the talents of architects Hodgetts + FungWe asked Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung about their design for the show, which is on view now for members and opens to the public on Saturday.

Foreground: Wallace "Wally" M. Byam, Clipper, 1936, Auburn Trailer Collection

What was your inspiration for the exhibition design?
The unique look pioneered by California’s modern designers was a direct inspiration for our design. Starting with a curvilinear, biomorphic shape that is a contemporary incarnation of the principles first espoused by Arts and Architecture magazine, the installation is designed to create a powerful sense of solid and void, and to lead the visitor on an exciting, smart journey through the history of California design.

This is definitely not a typical, art-historical survey of greatest hits, but a treasure trove of seminal design masterpieces that will resonate with everyone who appreciates the lithe, sensuous lines of contemporary design.  Those lines are echoed in the helical construction which soars through the Resnick Pavilion to gather groups of costumes, furnishings, and printed matter into micro-environments which refine and focus the collection. Visitors will be treated to a narrative guided by the rhythm of the helix and propelled by the energy of the curators’ ideas about various aspects of California design history as seen through the lens of those who designed it, made it, and ultimately sold it.

Installation view of Eames Living Room in the Resnick Pavilion. Installation made possible by a generous contribution from Martha and Bruce Karsh

Can you tell us more about the re-creation of the Eames living room?
We worked directly with the Eames family to bring to life the incredible collection of crafts, folk art, and found ephemera which Charles and Ray Eames collected over their lifetimes. They are installed in their exact locations in a full-scale reproduction of the famous Eames House. It may be the first time that the house has been paired with its most famous automotive contemporary, the Raymond Loewy-designed  Studebaker Avanti, and it is certainly the first time Rudi Gernreich’s seductive bathing suit will be anywhere near it, but such is the energy of the show, and the design which has brought it to fruition.

Raymond Loewy, Avanti, 1961, manufactured 1963-64, Petersen Automotive Museum

With more than 350 objects in the exhibition, what sort of design challenges did you face?
There were challenges, to be sure. Light-sensitive materials needed protection from the California sunlight which suffuses the Resnick Pavilion, and many of the more than three hundred and fifty artifacts required special treatment. Because objects, costumes, fabrics, and furniture were to be arranged according to the themes of the exhibition rather than by category, the displays needed to be adaptable to a wide range of sizes. Fragile jewelry was to be displayed in the shadow of the Eames house, and a replica of the long-gone setting for a Los Angeles Times photo shoot was to be surrounded by period advertising. The story was magnificent. How to support it by design was challenging, exciting, and rewarding.

Foreground: Kem (Karl Emanuel Martin) Weber, Desk and Chair, c. 1938, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Decorative Arts and Design Deaccession Fund, Viveca Paulin-Ferrell and Will Ferrell, Shannon and Peter Loughrey, Heidi and Said Saffari, and Holly and Albert Baril; background: Walt Disney Studios, Library Reading Room (presentation drawing), c. 1939, Kem Weber Collection, Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Art, Design + Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

Foreground: A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons, Sofa and Table from the Spencer House, 1961-64, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Spencer and Harry W. Saunders

How do you hope visitors will respond to the exhibition?
We want this exhibition to echo the unique California life style: to be as supple, as physically beautiful, and as good-humored as the surfer featured in John Van Hamersveld’s Endless Summer poster; to be as disciplined and graphically sophisticated as Ray Eames’ covers for Arts and Architecture magazine; and as accessible as Saul Bass’s advertisement for The Man with the Golden Arm. This is a populist show, designed to echo and magnify the great design tradition which began in California, and is now the standard of the world.

Scott Tennent


Make Yourself at Home

September 26, 2011

Installing a recreation of the Eames House living room

We’ve already given you a peek at the installation of California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way,” which opens this Saturday (or Thursday for members). One of the biggest marvels of the installation is the re-creation of Charles and Ray Eames’ living room, which was carefully deinstalled from the Eames House last month and is now being reassembled piece by piece in the Resnick Pavilion. Over the weekend the Los Angeles Times posted a fantastic time-lapse video of the project, as well as an article that gives more detail into how this endeavor was pulled off.


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